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Circular No. 62, Revised Edition. issued July 28, idos. 

United States Department of Agriculti 


L. O. HOWARD, Entomologist and Chief of 


By F. II. Chittenden, v*"^ 

Entomologist in Charge of Breeding ExperirHimtyL' 

Not since the " kissing-bug " craze which originated m*^ftebington, 
D. C, in June, 1899, and spread generally throughout the country, has 
there been anything like such a furore as was created by the discovery 
of the so-called "cabbage snake," a species of hair-worm, in the heads 
of cabbage in Tennessee, South Carolina, and Louisiana, in the fall of 
1903. That year the cabbage-snake scare was practically confined to 
Tennessee and neighboring States southward. The first specimen of 
Mermis albicans Diesing (fig. 1), which is the cause of the trouble," was 
identified from McCays, Tenn. This 
creature and its still somewhat mys- 
terious occurrence in* cabbage have 
become a matter of much perplexity 
and anno}^ance to many of our cor- 
respondents, to economic entomolo- 
gists, and to chemists and physicians 
of the States where the Mermis most 
abounds. Many reports have been 
received from reliable correspond- 
ents of rumors of persons being 

poisoned bv eating Cabbage affected FlG - l --Hair-worm {Mermis albicans). Natural 

by this hair-worm. Some of 'these size ( ° riginal) - 

were gleaned from the daily press, and many clippings of the "yellow 
journalism" order were received. Among them were alleged reports 
from a physician who stated that when cabbage affected by hair-worms 
was eaten it produced instant death, and from a "State chemist" who 
made an examination of the worm and reported that it contained 
enough poison "to kill eight persons." In Raleigh County, W. Va., 
the cabbage crop was reported a complete failure, and "there was 

a So many inquiries in regard to the identity of the creature and its alleged poisonous 
nature were received that a short account was furnished under the title "Hair Worms 
hi Cabbage," in Bui. 44, of this office, pp. 93-95; and similar inquiries are being made 
to date of publication. During 1904, frequently five or six communications were 
received daily. 

47474— Cir. 62—08 

enough poison contained In one worm to poison 25 men." It should 
be unnecessary to add that none of these reports had any foundation in 
fact. Nevertheless the known presence of the hair-worm in an affected 
district seriously injured the demand for cabbage there, causing very 
considerable losa to t puckers and grocers. The exaggerated reports of 

L903 were not seriously considered; and it was a matter of surprise 
when they were reiterated the following year, and what was in reality 

a hoax assumed OXOsi serious proportions, not alone because of wide- 
spread alarm caused by erroneous reports of loss of life, hut also 
because of the very material loss to cabbage growers and others who 
handled this commodity, and the decided extension of the area in 
which the hair-worm was detected. Encouraged by erroneous reports, 
evidently incited in many cases by unscrupulous persons, the scare 
Boon became widespread, causing general fear of poisoning from Vir- 
ginia and West Virginia southward through the same States as were 
affected in L903, and into Florida, and in addition westward to Ken- 
tucky. Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Colorado. 


The cabbage hair-worm is aptly described as resembling a piece of 
basting thread, of the thickness of a strand of corn silk, of a darning 
needle, of a No. 36 or No. 4() thread, or like a horsehair; white in 
color; found coiled, or coiling and uncoiling; stretched at length or 
crawling in cabbage heads. Its length varies from 2 to 9 inches, but 
reports have been received of a creature found in the heads of cabbage 
measuring 9 feet ! The imagination of newspaper writers as to color 
runs riot through "green, white, light red, olive green, and yellow.'' 

As a matter of fact this hair-w^orm is filiform or thread-like, and 
when it attracts attention on cabbage, measures generally from 4 to 8 
inches. ( me specimen, doubtfully of the same species, measured when 
uncoiled 22 inches, or nearly 2 feet. ^The color is white or whitish, 
although it sometimes has a pale brownish or greenish tinge. 


Many popular names have been bestowed upon this worm, including 
"cabbage snake," " snake," " snake worm," "serpent," " reptile," 
"cabbage rattlesnake/ 3 occasionally "cabbage worm/' and seldom if 
ever hair-worm. Mosl specimens submitted for identification have 
proved to be what is known as Mi rm is albicans Diesing. a This crea- 
ture is neither an insect uor a snake, but one of the hair-worms of the 

a The studies of Diesing, Siebold, Meissner, and others have led to the expressed belief 
i he mature sexual form of acuminata, the latter name having 


order Gordiacea. The principal species of this order belong to the 
genera Gordius and Mermis, and were treated of somewhat at length 

in 1S77." 

Mo-iii is albicans was received during 1903 in a piece of apple, 
found coiled Dear the seed. This species is known to be parasitic on 
the codling moth or "apple worm" (Carpocapsa pomonella L.), which 

accounts for its presence in this instance (1. c, p. 327). Tt is also 
parasitic on certain common and destructive forms of grasshoppers, 
Melanoplus spretus Thos. or Rocky Mountain locust, .1/. differentialis 
Thos. or differential locust, Scliistocerca americana Dru. ; and Dissos- 
ii ira Carolina L. 6 



The presence of this hair-worm in cabbage and the unfortunate noto- 
riety which has been given it, including the circulation of the merest 
rumors, mostly vague and uncertain, of so many persons being poi- 
soned by eating affected cabbage, has seriously injured the money 
value of this vegetable very generally throughout the affected States. 
Although the cabbage hair-worm is not in the slightest degree deleteri- 
ous to health, the credence given to the most absurd rumors which w^ere 
circulated has injured cabbage for consumption and hence for sale. 
In parts of Illinois the fears of growers and purchasers were such that 
farmers were letting their cabbage go to waste. At Quinter, Kans., 
quantities of cabbage shipped from Colorado were reported burned 
because of the presence of the hair-worm. In Tennessee it was esti- 
mated that in 1904 fully 85 per cent of the cabbage crop of the State 
was lost — in fact, a sudden and complete suspension of the industry 
was actually caused. Similar reports were received from various por- 
tions of Missouri, Iowa, West Virginia, and Virginia. ''In Cheatham, 
Smith, Franklin, Coffee, Bedford, and other counties [in Missouri] 
hundreds of barrels of sauerkraut were destroyed through fear that the 
dreaded snake might be a part of the ingredients." At Columbia, Mo., 
hundreds of dollars' worth of cabbage was lost. Many gardeners 
claimed that they could not sell a single head on account of the " snake 
scare . ' ' 

" First report of the U. S. Entomological Commission, published in 1877 (pp. 326-334). 
The hosts of hair-worms include many Orthoptera (grasshoppers or locusts, crickets, 
and katydids). They are sometimes parasitic on beetles, more particularly Carabidse 
or ground beetles, on bees and flies, on caterpillars of butterflies and moths, and even 
on snails. 

& The classification and habits of Mermis have not been given much study, hence 
some slight doubt exists as to the species of Mermis observed in the case of some of 
the hosts cited, but if one species will affect both lepidopterous larvse and grasshoppers, 
this is evidence of its not being overparticular as to its host. 
[Cir. 62] 


The general impression id regard to the poisonous nature of the cab- 
bage hair-worm has bees mentioned, yet considerable differences of 
opinion prevail. To repeat alleged deaths and poisonings in detail 
might have the opposite effect from that for which tins circular was 
prepared. Stories were circulated of whole families being poisoned by 
eating cabbage affected with the hair-worm, sometimes with the reser- 
vation that do one knew 'personally of their truth, and that many 
ease- were traced to t heir source and found to be utterly without foun- 
dation. From Tennessee came a report of the death in one town of a 
man. woman, and six children. In portions of the same and in other 
States persons were stated to have been taken ill with pain and vom- 
iting after having eaten cabbage on which the worms were subse- 
quently found. Possibly the consumers had been seized with tempo- 
rary hysteria, imagining that they had unconsciously eaten many indi- 
viduals, hence the symptoms. Others were reported severely poisoned 
or dead. In most cases exact localities were furnished, but names 
were wanting. In some cases domestic animals were said to have been 
poisoned; in others cabbage was fed to them without any ill results. 

The death of a man and wife and their four children in an Illinois 
town after eating snake-worm infested cabbage was reported in several 
newspapers and the family name mentioned: 

The entire family of six ate the cabbage at supper and died during the night. A 
cabbage in the garden was examined and found to contain worms the size of a thread, 
8 or 10 inches long and about the color of the cabbage. The cabbage was cut up and 
fed to animals, and all died. Farmers are destroying all their cabbage. Three per- 
sons in. the neighborhood have recently died after eating cabbage. 

In response to inquiry from this office the postmaster of this town, 
the name of which is omitted for obvious reasons, wrote December 17, 
1904, that efforts were made to locate the origin of the account, but 
without success. 


The hair-worms of the genus Mermis develop within the body of 
their host and, according to various writers, when about full grown 
desert it by rupturing the body wall. These individuals are undevel- 
oped sexually, and characterized by a mouth consisting of a minute 
aperture, and a minute anal point which is generally curved. On issu- 
ing from the host the worm bores into the earth and conceals itself. 
During tins stage in the soil do food is taken, though several months 
may elapse, the creature hibernating and becoming sexually mature 
before copulation takes place in the spring. The sexes unite in knots, 
and the female deposits numerous eggs fl in the ground. Here the 

" Ii might be added that hair-worms positively do no1 develop from horsehairs. 
[Clr. i 

young, which arc thread-like like their parents, hatch and burrow 
upward to the surface, and enter as parasites the bodies of caterpillars 
and various soft insects, such as are found under leaves and other 
debris near the ground. 

The habits of Mermis in Europe have given rise to the belief in a 
rain of worms. Xot infrequently in summer time, after a warm rain 
at night, swarms of these hair-worms appear on the surface of the 
earth, whence the supposition that they are rained down. 


Numbers of hair-worms other than Mermis albicans — the larvae of 
mycetophilid flies, and some species of myriopods, as also angleworms — 
have been received as undoubted cabbage snakes or as suspects. In 
fact, gullible people throughout the affected region have literally gone 
"hunting for trouble," and have sent everything conceivable except 
the true cabbage worms (caterpillars of moths and butterflies), which 
are altogether too well known, as suspected k ' cabbage snakes. " Some 
of these — all, with the possible exception of the myriopods and my- 
cetophilids, of accidental occurrence on cabbage — wall be mentioned. 

Mermis spp. — Several species of Mermis. related to albicans but differing in various 
particulars, have been received with the usual reports of poisonousness. One species 
of hair-worm, resembling the '"cabbage snake" and possibly the same species, was 
received from St. Clara, W. Va., in March. 1905. which measured nearly 2 feet in 
length (22 inches) when uncoiled. 

Paragordius varius, a suspect, was not found in cabbage but in water "without 
visible means of support, " in Virginia. 

Geophilus spp. — Numbers of myriopods of the order Chilopoda, which includes the 
centipedes and millipedes, were among this number, nearly all belonging to the genus 
Geophilus. There appear to be no positive records of the infliction of serious injury 
to man by any forms of these creatures found in the United States, but certain tropical 
forms are decidedly venomous. These creatures sometimes attack man, if acciden- 
tally handled, but they are not known to occur in cabbage. The poisonous species 
are large and conspicuous, and therefore not likely to be eaten with food. The 
species of this genus have carnivorous habits, and there is a possibility that they may 
destroy some forms of cabbage worms and hence may be beneficial. 

Earthworms. — Specimens of earthworms, in such bad condition that identification 
was impossible, were received from West Virginia and Ohio, where they were mis- 
taken for the cabbage hair-worm. 

Mycetophilids. — The larva? of mycetophilid flies were received in several instances, 
from August until October, 1904, chiefly from Tennessee, Virginia, and South Caro- 
lina. A correspondent at Duffield, Va.. pronounced these maggots poisonous, and said 
that death had resulted from the use of cooked cabbage in which they had been found. 
A correspondent at Yokum, Ky.. made a similar report. 


In spite of repeated published and written statements that the so- 
called cabbage snake is not poisonous, this fact has not been given 


very genera] credence, hence the matter is still imperfectly understood 
by many. As it is an esl ablished fad thai none of the hair-worm- poi - 
- poisonous properties, it was not considered necessary to make 
any analyses or experiments at this Department to demonstrate their 
nontoxic quality. However, Dr. Louis Leroy, Nashville, Tenn., who 
corresponded with this office on this topic during Augusl and Septem- 
ber, 1904, undertook to demonstrate beyond peradventure of doubt 
that the hair-worm could not possibly cause harm to persons eating it 
or cabbage od which it had occurred, and, although he has already 
published on the subject , it may be well, for the benefit of skeptics, to 
repeat in substance his conclusions: 

During September he wrote that he had carried on a thorough investigation of the 
alleged poisonous nature of this hair-worm, and found absolutely nothing toxic con- 
d with it. cither when eaten raw or when cooked, or on cabbage on which the 
creature had lived. Efforts to trace every reported case of poisoning in Tennessee 
result; d in ascertaining that they wire all without foundation: no authentic case 
could be cited; and finally, he Bays " I am at a loss to understand how such reports 
could gain credence and ever be published for facts in the daily press. " In order to 
determine whether or not the hair-worm had any poisonous qualities he instituted a 
i experiments, using rabbits, guinea pigs, cats. d«>gs. horses, and cows, finding 
that they could all eat the worms, raw or cooked, with impunity. Extracts from the 
hair-worms prepared with various solvents were also found t<« he entirely innocuous, 
administered internally per orem) and injected hypodermically. 

"Believing that possibly these worms might cause decomposition or fermentation 
in the cabbage, with the production of poisonous substances, the result of the decom- 
position," he allowed samples of cabbage, both raw and cooked, to decompose with 
tlie worms, and then tested the decomposed material for poisonous properties as above, 
and in no cose was any toxic substance obtained, Chemical analyses of the worms 
and the products of die imposition mentioned were made, and he was unable to find 
any ptomaine or other isolatable substance of a toxic nature. 

A- a result the conclusion was reached "that the cabbage snake is 
entirely harmless, and that public rumors and superstitions are falla- 
without semblance of foundation." 


James Wilson, 

Si '■/■' tary of Agriculture. 

Washington, D. C, June 10, 1908. 
Xoti:.— First issue, May 17, 1905. 






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